Every week, The Interline analyses up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Documenting the pandemic’s effect on technology adoption within fashion.

The COVID pandemic has reached a stage where global imbalances are becoming increasingly pronounced. At the same time that people queue outside Delhi hospitals to refill oxygen bottles, and funeral pyres burn around the clock, the USA, UK, and a lot of Europe are staging a steady – and potentially permanent – return to normality that yesterday saw the US CDC lift the mask recommendation for fully vaccinated people in lots of settings.

It remains to be seen just how far these two different outcomes will diverge, and how politically palatable it is for other countries to rally to India’s aid when their own vaccination programmes are still unfinished, but it seems certain that the apparel and textile world should expect further destabilisation of its supply base in the short to mid-term.

As a counterpoint to that potential erosion in supply and production capacity, though, the retail technology industry has just finished out its best-performing period in the last five years – meaning that more brands and retailers have invested in new technology during the pandemic than even the most optimistic projections. And with the benefit of time to document and analyse that trend, this is now something analysts can substantiate.

This conclusion is supported by new research released this week, which reveals that retail technology investments tripled year over year in the first quarter of 2021. This growth is being driven – as you might expect – by efficiency, eCommerce, and the ongoing need to reinforce and optimise supply chains. How far the latter will be able to offset the currently lopsided global COVID recovery – which is weighted heavily towards consumption markets normalising before production markets – remains to be seen, but investments in digital selling and in-store technology are likely to deliver returns in fairly short order as those consumption markets try to manage potentially dramatic rebounds in consumer demand.

But the most obvious technology investments – those that are geared around managing short term disruption and making the most of an avalanche of multi-channel spending – are only part of the picture. Our sister publication, WhichPLM, also recently published its latest PLM Buyer’s Guide, which includes analysis of the market for product lifecycle management solutions for retail, footwear, and apparel businesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the way the world has changed in the last year, new sales these foundational solutions are high – mirroring the broader trend towards technology adoption that’s taken place industry-wide.

WhichPLM’s analysis also concludes that the majority of these sales have been through subscription-based models, and of solutions that run on public cloud architectures rather than the legacy method of on-premise or private cloud deployments. And this is also indicative of a broader trend: public cloud service revenues grew more than 24% in 2020, as revealed by new IDC data published yesterday. To put it bluntly: people in fashion are buying a lot of software, and they’re doing it in a resolutely modern way.

The reasons for this are easy to parse: subscription software is more appealing that capital spending at a time of peak uncertainty, and while many brands will be mulling – or already implementing – a return to the office this month, most will also be offering some form of either permanent remote working or hybrid home / office structures. In the latter case, reliable public cloud architecture is largely going to be preferable to proprietary systems, VPNs, and virtual desktops for critical product design, development, and collaboration tasks.

Image courtesy of Amazon.

It would be remiss, though, not to point out that retail’s investment in technology also extends to hardware, with significant strides being made towards the automation of warehousing and fulfilment through robotics. This remains a sensitive issue for several reasons – not least the potential for significant reductions in job availability – but at this juncture, even as only parts of the world begin to approach a COVID recovery, it’s becoming clear that technology is being treated as much more than a tool to cope with a temporary problem. Many of the investments that have spurred retail tech on to a wildly successful year are of the kind that are destined to take years – if not decades – to fully realise their potential. But it’s a potential that the industry as a whole is clearly more invested in than ever.

And the best from The Interline this week:

This week we were proud to publish three exclusives from women whose perspectives come from very different places on the fashion technology spectrum.

The first came from Ana Pedrosa Rodrigues, who works as Client Liaison for a family-owned garment manufacturing business in Portugal. Ana wrote an impassioned, compelling story of how Portuguese apparel production has weathered disruption and seized uncommon opportunities in the past, and how relationships between factories and their brand customers has changed as a result of the COVID-catalysed need for the wider industry to do both of those things.

Our second exclusive was by Anne-Christine Polet, who serves as SVP of Digital Ventures within PVH Europe’s in-house corporate startups. In that feature, she examines the need for technology innovation to be twinned with change management and cultural evolution if long-term digital transformation is to be a success.

Finally, we published our first exclusive op-ed from Kelly Vero, who holds multiple advisory and evangelist roles in the crossover space between interactive media and fashion. Kelly’s feature looks at how the changing nature of B2C engagement should also be mirrored in the way B2B communication operates between different contributors to the concept-to-consumer lifecycle.